Invisible Lives: Hunting for Slave Quarters at Montpelier

posted on: September 10, 2012


Part III: James Madison- A 2012 look at a Founding Father

Archeology played a crucial role in the restoration of the mansion of Montpelier now returned to its glory when Madison was president. Domestic slaves lived near the mansion; archeologists uncovered the size and form of their dwelling close to a kitchen, as well as two smoke houses. Frames waiting for funds to fully restore them illustrate their size and location. Two enslaved families lived in a duplex that was 16 X 20.

James Madison studied and dreamed of democracy and equality.  Our marvelous constitution with its intricate checks and balances has preserved our democracy and our self-government.  But it had a flaw and the flaw was slavery. As he lay dying, he wrote, in his open letter to my country, “Don’t let the serpent destroy the Garden of Eden” and the serpent was slavery.

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were best friends and colleagues, their lives intertwined in striking ways. They both switched from tobacco to wheat as their cash crop, which was true for most of the other planters. Madison’s wife, Dolley, entertained with Jefferson when he was President.  They had difficult family lives and both died penniless. They chose the same blue and white Chinese imported porcelain as dinnerware.

In this important election year, a year in which much of the constitution and our founding fathers’ words and thoughts are quoted, both the conflicts in their lives as well as their ideas have wisdom for our modern times. I did not anticipate, nor was it one of my motives, to be absorbed in the life, thought or ideology of Madison and Jefferson.  There was no way that I could have anticipated that their ideology would be adored anew.  I had come to investigate the life of their slaves; surely not their most proud moments. Yet, I was immersed in their passion for freedom, equality, and their own awareness of irony before they were reclaimed and reinterpreted in the heat of the current political struggle. History is alive and relevant to our time, especially, Madison’s passion for separation of church and state as politicians use religious values as justification for laws and positions.

As a delegate to the Virginia Convention in 1776, Madison suggested profound changes proclaiming the right, rather than merely tolerance, to the free exercise of religion.  He worked with Jefferson to disestablish the Anglican Church from the state. Religious belief was “precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.” Thus, he placed freedom of conscience prior to and superior to all other rights, and gave it the strongest political foundation possible including acceptance of liberty of conscience for people who are atheists.

Separation of church and state was guaranteed by the first amendment of our constitution. More than any other person, Madison is responsible for the religious freedom that is so crucial to our values. We assume, and politicians proclaim, we are a Christian country.  Madison and Jefferson worked hard to form a state that was not tied to a religion. They did not want the state to control religion, or religion to control the state. We are not a Christian country; rather we are a country where most of its people are Christian of many different denominations and beliefs.

James Madison was a complete nerd. Only 5’4”, frail with a whispery voice, he loved books and completed Princeton in two years. He became involved in the burgeoning freedom movement, took his concerns back home to Virginia and spent the next few years working for religious freedom with Thomas Jefferson.  Aware of the weakness in the 1781 articles of Confederation, Madison devoted several years studying every recorded attempt at self-government, rule by the people rather than a monarch.  Thomas Jefferson shipped him books from Paris and Madison’s fluency in several languages allowed him to read in Greek and Latin and French and Hebrew.  Madison pondered: Why had all the past democracies failed? How could the interests of individuals, states, and national authority be balanced? And he came up with our Constitution sitting in his library in Montpelier with a view of his plantation, and beyond that, the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Madison led the Constitutional Convention and, in spite of his tiny voice, his big ideas and persuasive arguments won the convention to many of his ideas.

Ironically, Madison had a slave, Billey, with him. Billey was privy to the discussions and questioned Madison.  Madison realized Billey couldn’t return to the plantation because he might spread the ideas of equality and freedom to the other slaves.  “I do not expect to get near the worth of him; but cannot think of punishing him by transportation (further south) merely for coveting that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood, and have proclaimed so often to be the right, and worthy the pursuit of every human being.” So Madison sold him to someone from Philadelphia where slavery lasted only seven years. This incident elucidates Madison’s own awareness of the inherent hypocrisy, but money and power trumped his own ideals.

Madison didn’t get married until he was 43, adopting Dolley’s son (who was a gambler and alcoholic and ended up driving him to bankruptcy and both Madison and Dolley into poverty so she had to sell Montpelier). They never had any children. Madison went on to become President for two terms and then retired to Montpelier at 66, founding, with Jefferson, the University of Virginia. He died at 85, his slave, Paul Jennings, by his side.

It was Madison’s grandfather who sent ten slaves there to clear the land that became the plantation.  Then, if you cleared land and built a house, you owned the property.  The field they cleared was planted with tobacco. Madison’s grandfather was poisoned (a slave was hung for his murder) and his wife managed the thriving tobacco plantation until her son was able to take it over. James Madison was the eldest of his eleven children.

When the tobacco boom ended, the field became the space for the homes of those slaves who worked wheat fields. This is the field where we would dig.

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